The Trouble with Storytelling

Storytelling is a huge trend right now in marketing and brand building. I hear about the importance of telling great stories with great content all the time – it’s what makes brands human, what makes them relatable and interesting.

But storytelling can get us into a lot of trouble.

I recently fell into the trap of telling myself a story that while my friend had all the time in the world for her other buddies, she had only one evening every few weeks for me. I told myself she had much better friends to associate with and I ended up feeling bitter and disinclined to meet up with her. When I finally did, it came up: was she really spending all her time hanging out with other people? No. In fact, I was one of the few people she even had time to visit with. Her wedding is close to mine, so she’s been in the throes of planning alongside a high-pressure (yet incredibly rewarding) job. My story was dead wrong.

I told myself a story that seemed to resolve the problem in my head, so I stuck with it. I let it simmer until it boiled over in a great big glob of wasted energy and self-pity.

We do it every day

A fine example of this is what many of us do every day: with every excuse, every complaint, every snarky comment – we’re convincing ourselves of something that we have little to no supporting proof of.

Most often, I notice it when people aren’t in a career that they see themselves doing for the rest of their lives (which is so many of us young vagabonds), or when they’re stuck in a creative rut. Excuses pop up; things like bosses that aren’t receptive, financial or personal situations that are just out of my control. We weave an intricate back story for people we don’t actually take the time to get to know, and situations we don’t actually take the time to control.

I recently read the book Crucial Conversations and found it extraordinarily helpful (especially when I read it alongside my colleagues with a safe space to discuss the issues). The main takeaway for me was identifying when I tell myself stories. It’s surprising – I recommend focusing on what stories you tell yourself daily, and you’ll see you do so more than you would like to. The principle, “master my stories” has been on my mind ever since reading the book:

Master My Stories—A principle that help us control the emotions that drive our actions. We do this by challenging the stories we tell ourselves—we ask questions. One such question is “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?” Posing the question is NOT making an assumption that all people are reasonable, rational, and decent; rather, posing the question IS an effort to consider other possibilities. This increases the probability of getting what we really want.

Effort is what matters: it’s easy to construct a whole world of would-be scenarios, but if we don’t make the effort to find out what’s really going on, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. If we can learn to control the emotions behind our behavior, we’ll be able to see more objectively what we want.

You’re not the victim, so stop it

These stories usually are sympathetic towards the teller – we make ourselves the victim or exaggerate the hopelessness of the situation. In the situation above, it turned out I was definitely not the victim. In fact, I was the more of the villain: I added to the stress my dear friend had about distributing her small pieces of spare time evenly and appropriately.

And once we start telling ourselves stories, we tell others those same stories – who wants to hear about how unsupported, unheard, mistreated and miserable I am? No one, and especially since those are all very untrue. These stories become a hindrance to our communications, our relationships and our professional lives.

Here’s my challenge to you this week: keep an eye out for stories you’re telling to yourself, your colleagues and your friends. If you find yourself having 24-straight hours of a pity party, then it’s time to reevaluate. Are you really being oppressed? Or, is it just your inability to assert and motivate yourself that’s holding you back?

I’m going to bet that more often than not, it’s the second. I know it is for me.

What stories are you telling yourself?

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2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Storytelling

  1. Brilliant. There’s also this theory that our memories are not so much what actually happened as what we decide happened and reinforce by retelling the same way. It’s extremely obvious when you think of your childhood, then ask your parents/siblings about the same event and hearing their totally opposite telling of the same exact event. It’s amazing how easily we convince ourselves of things that are not true and extremely biased.

    For example, I work at the same place of work that I was once fired from. When I came back, 1.5 years later and took up the same job, I saw it with extremely new eyes and I realized how much I had been taking things for granted before. I had assumed that my boss would be fair to me, without taking into account how much I was attempting to take advantage of the job. Of course a boss isn’t going to be fair to a worker who is doing the least amount of work possible, even less at times, than should have been possible. I had previously expected to get away with that and was all aghast when I wasn’t allowed to do so. Looking back, I was a totally work ethic deprived employee so it was no wonder that I was fired! In the interview for my re-hire I had said that I had improved my work ethic, but I said it solely to get the job without really believing my own words because I still felt like I was in the role of the victim. Since stopping that viewpoint, I have improved and also felt so much less persecuted. Because there is no longer any reason to persecute me! If you stop being the victim, you stop being the victim, haha.

    • Wow, I love that story. Particularly “If you stop being the victim, you stop being the victim” that’s so true! Thank you so much for sharing that. I’ve been falling into the victim mentality lately, so this was a great reminder.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for reading!

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